Beware the Siren Song of DRM

As explained below, this blog post is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 3.0.

When you've made it past the writing, the editing, the cover design, and all those other preparatory steps, you'll be faced with a curious question when you go to release your book for e-readers like the Kindle or NOOK. The setup steps for your new book will include a prompt for whether or not you want to apply "DRM" to your book. This is not a trivial question, even though it's just a yes/no question (unlike most other parts of the setup form). If you have never really given much thought to the DRM issue and assumed it was a simple choice, please read on.

First, Some Background

In a nutshell, DRM is computer enforcement of copyrights. The acronym stands for Digital Rights Management, and the scope of DRM spans various digital media including books, movies, and music. The basic concept is that people have demonstrated little respect for laws prohibiting unauthorized copying, so computers can be used to regain control of things. There have been quite a few approaches toward that goal, with varying strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of the details of any given DRM method, the goal is to make sure that a buyer of a digital product can't turn around and make unauthorized copies of that product for friends, family, or complete strangers. For DRM methods, "strengths" include effectively preventing unauthorized copies and not burdening legitimate buyers, and "weaknesses" are the opposite, i.e., failing to prevent illicit copies and/or burdening legitimate buyers. There have been some DRM methods that have been laughably ineffective at preventing copying, and there have been some that raised a furor among legitimate buyers due to the excessive burden imposed on them. But is there a DRM method that legitimate buyers don't mind and also effectively prevents illegal copying? We'll look at that next.

Your DRM Decision

Now that you hopefully have a better understanding of what DRM is all about, in a general sense, it's time to analyze whether it makes sense to enable DRM for your books or not. The strengths and weaknesses mentioned above provide a good framework for that analysis. Does the DRM do what it's supposed to, by preventing illegal copying of your book? And does the DRM give people with legally-acquired copies of your book (whether they paid for it themselves, received it as a gift, downloaded it on a KDP Select "free" promo, etc.) the ability to use the book for legal purposes without imposing excessive burdens?

Does It Work?

There's no point beating around the bush: It's not impossible to get around the DRM on e-Books. The people most likely to be inhibited by DRM are those who are no threat to your sales anyway, and are probably readers with legal copies of your book. Conversely, the people most likely to be a threat to sales by making a very large number of illicit copies for complete strangers, such as by distributing the book file through a file sharing service, probably won't be slowed down too much by DRM, which is a notoriously difficult thing to get right.

Does It Burden Readers?

It should be obvious that we want readers to like our books. We normally won't care what a thief thinks, but we do want readers with legal copies of our books to be satisfied with their overall experience. Satisfied readers give good word-of-mouth exposure and might even write positive online reviews, which helps promote sales. Unhappy readers give bad word-of-mouth exposure and might write up their complaints in strong language in online reviews, which hurts sales.

Often, what makes us unhappy in life is not having our expectations honored. This is true outside of commercial transactions, it's true across the spectrum of commerce, and it's true for readers experiencing our books (whether resulting from a commercial transaction or not). After hundreds of years of experience with printed books, there are certain expectations that readers will generally have regarding a book. For example, when a reader buys a paperback, they expect that they own the book, they're not just "licensed" to read it while the physical product still belongs to the author or publisher. Similarly, they expect that their book will be available for them to read several years, or even several decades, in the future without paying for it more than once. They expect to be able to take it with them no matter where the go. After reading it, they expect that they'll be able to loan it to a friend (or two, or five), or sell it in a yard sale, or donate it to charity.

DRM stomps on most or all of those expectations. For a book with DRM enabled, "ownership" is questionable (depending on the vendor), the book may not be available later (due to device failure, technology changes, etc.), readers may not be able to take it with them if doing so involves transferring the file to a different device, loaning is either not possible or tightly restricted, and selling or donating the book file is also almost certainly not going to work.

When someone has their expectations ignored or even disrespected, they're not going to be happy about it. Taking all of those expectations about a book purchase and throwing them out the window is not the type of experience that will have people writing positive reviews and recommending your book to their friends.

[Authors Against DRM]

In fact, the inconveniences of DRM lead some readers to personally "boycott" books with DRM enabled. If you search for DRM discussions in online communities of e-reader users, it's not hard to find readers who refuse to buy any book with DRM, often because they have multiple devices and they want to be able to move the book freely among their devices. If such a reader is in your target audience, and if you have DRM on your book, you'll lose that sale.

Does It Make Sense; i.e., Should You Use It?

If it doesn't work to protect your book, and it burdens readers who have legal copies to the point where potential buyers will refuse to buy books with DRM, can it possibly make sense to enable DRM for your books? No, not really. And if it doesn't make sense, then you shouldn't use it. It's that simple.

To their credit, Amazon and Barnes & Noble don't try to sell authors on the DRM concept, they just explain briefly what it is "intended" to accomplish and the user interfaces are reasonably neutral about whether it is a good idea or not. In their position of needing to serve all authors, including those who are adamant about using DRM and wouldn't publish for their respective e-reader devices if DRM was not available, not actively promoting DRM to indie authors is probably the best we can hope for from the major e-book retailers.

My Confession

I really can't explain why, but the first book I published for the Kindle (Lesson One: Revolution!) has DRM enabled on it. And when I say "can't explain" I mean that as in can not, rather than prefer not. It doesn't really make sense to me, because I was opposed to DRM before I published it, and I'm still opposed to it (obviously), so why did I enable it? Was it a mousing mistake, clicking the wrong option? Was it a momentary lapse of reason? Did I walk away from my computer without locking it and somebody took the opportunity for a little mischief? (OK, that's stretching it, I'm virtually certain that wasn't the case.) For whatever embarrassing reason, I published it with DRM enabled, and there seems to be no reliable, feasible way to undo that mistake. So in this case I must suggest, "do as I say, not as I did." Naturally, the Kindle books I published later do not have DRM enabled. I also avoided enabling DRM for my books when setting them up for the NOOK, and I have no plans to publish any future titles with DRM.

Permission Granted to Copy?

Not enabling DRM is not the same thing as giving permission to make copies of your book. You still retain all of the rights granted to you under copyright laws and treaties. Skipping the use of DRM just means not trying to use computers and media devices to try to enforce those rights, for the reasons outlined above. However, some authors actually do give permission in advance to make copies of their books, such as by releasing the work under the terms of one of the Creative Commons licenses. My collection of short stories, Journey to Yandol, and other stories, is released that way. That means that you could, if you were lucky and/or resourceful, get a copy of it without paying for it, and it would be legal to do that (and to give away additional copies to your friends). That sort of free sharing is not possible with a DRM-enabled book.

Speaking of free-sharing licenses, I've "given away" many digital creations over the past 20+ years, including software, photos, videos, audio recordings, and writings. Sometimes that has been through an "open" license, sometimes with a "copyleft" license, and sometimes by simply donating what I've created to the public domain. The "Authors Against DRM" logo appearing on this page was created by Nina Paley for and it is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Whether that would require that I release this blog post under the same license or not, that is one of my preferred licenses, so it's simplest and fitting for me to just do that anyway. If you'd like to copy or otherwise use this post, please click over to the license via the link at the top of this post to find out the terms for taking advantage of that permission I have granted to you.

Additional Reading

Beyond the links provided above, you might find "The Danger of E-Books" interesting, as it deals with the DRM issue. (It does not suggest that all e-books are dangerous, only that DRM-enabled titles — and the hardware platforms and economic systems enabling and enabled by the DRM technology — are a serious problem.) Even if you're not personally "up in arms" over DRM, you might want to check out a site like to see how seriously some people will take it, and what kind of reaction you might get from would-be buyers (even if it's never expressed to you directly) if you decide to enable DRM despite my recommendation against doing so.

About the Author
Stuart J. Whitmore is an author of fiction and nonfiction, as well as a photographer, technology developer, and more. If you enjoy reading his blog posts, you might also enjoy reading his books. Take a look at the books by Stuart J. Whitmore today, and download your copy of one that looks interesting to you!